Why and how we might want to rethink agricultural ‘innovation’

Why and how we might want to rethink agricultural ‘innovation’

The idea that food systems face complex and pressing challenges that require integrated and innovative solutions is a very familiar one. Our familiarity shouldn’t inadvertently dilute the importance of the fundamental truths of this message. Innovation is undoubtedly key to adapting to changing climates, providing access to safe and nutritious food for a growing population, and mitigating the negative environmental consequences of doing so.

However, the imperative for innovation should not prevent us from thinking critically about how innovation happens and who it is for. If anything, it is a reason to be more attuned to these critical questions than ever. The theme for World Food Day 2023 – leave no one behind – encourages us, amongst other things, to think carefully about the potential for agricultural innovations to be exclusive or experienced in inequitable ways.

Over the past fifteen years, I have worked, in one way or another, on the development of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) in Africa, driven by the notion of win-win(-win) agricultural practices that are productive, resilient to climate variability, and have minimal environmental impacts. There is a huge amount of work and some fantastic innovation happening in this space: from organic crop pest management and soil conservation methods to precision fertiliser applications and controlled irrigation strategies.

Those innovations that we tend to hear most about or that are most readily labelled as ‘climate smart’ – such as conservation agriculture (CA), integrated pest management (IPM), systems of rice intensification (SRI), and so forth – are often backed by international agricultural research centres and large donors and are associated with ambitious ‘scaling up’ agendas.

Ever since I attended the First African Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Lusaka in 2014, I have repeatedly returned to, and continue to be struck by, the congress Declaration, which called for “commitment from all national and international stakeholders in the public, private and civil sectors to support the up-scaling of conservation agriculture as a climate smart technology to reach at least 25 million farmers across Africa by 2025”.

I have thought a lot about the assumptions that underpin this ambition – about whether climate smartness is the right objective, and whether conservation agriculture is the right ‘technology’ for achieving this objective across different contexts. It has also worried me that if we are too quick to accept those assumptions, we allow ourselves to see the scale and extent of adoption of a technology as an objective measure of success in itself, rather than focusing on its (admittedly less easily measured) social and environmental outcomes.

Of course, the reality is that technological fixes are rarely win-win. The trade-offs associated with a particular decision or practice on a farm play out in multifaceted and often very context-specific ways. There might be trade-offs between the primary goals of CSA (e.g., between maximising productivity and maximising resilience), but also beyond them. For example, we might find that there are unequal and gendered labour burdens associated with a particular technology or that it requires resources that could be put to other uses. It is also important to recognise that what is packaged today as a climate-smart technology often has a long history that is grounded in diverse local knowledges and traditional practices. The vision set out in the declaration of the African Congress on Conservation Agriculture, of scaling-up a specific technological fix to almost all smallholder farmers across Africa (and the idea that this should be the mission of all stakeholders), strikes me as an uncomfortable overlooking of these important nuances.

This discomfort has led me to become interested, from a research perspective, in unpacking assumptions about agricultural innovation, rethinking what innovation means, and finding genuine ways to understand how innovation happens in different (and sometimes interacting) contexts: from the controlled experiments of agricultural research centres through to the learning and decision making that takes place on farms and in households.

It has been really exciting to work with Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) fellow Dr Nana Afraana Kwapong, from the University of Ghana. Nana has been using creative methods, including participatory video research approaches, to document and understand the ways in which communities in the Lawra Municipal District in the Upper West Region of Ghana have interacted with programmes and extension services promoting conservation agriculture in the region.

The research has produced two video documentaries, conceived of and produced by farmers themselves, in which they discuss the merits and challenges of conservation agriculture and the practices and pitfalls of following prescriptive advice about how to prepare soil, plant crops, and manage weeds, among other things. Her research highlights some of the ways in which farmers draw on different ideas, knowledge, and social interactions to trial, adapt, and experiment with different farming techniques and strategies. It also speaks to, and in some ways replicates, the performative nature of interacting with development agents and practitioners, highlighting the contrast between the performance of being an agricultural technology adopter and the challenging realities of farming.

You can watch one of these documentaries here: https://fsnetafrica.com/video/participatory-video-bompari-farmers-experiances-with-climate-smart-agriculture/

Agricultural innovation in these communities, as it is in many places around the world, is a continual and social process, as it has been throughout history. By promoting a particular technology or practice, development agents and agricultural extension services become a part of this ongoing local mosaic of innovation. Research on the lived experiences of agricultural innovation is not intended as a critique of, or counter to, efforts to develop and promote sustainable and productive agricultural practices. Rather, its purpose is to help us understand how processes of innovation, in the broadest sense, can be best supported, in different contexts, towards achieving appropriate and relevant social and environmental goals.

The ideas, techniques, and tools that Nana has developed throughout her FSNet-Africa fellowship have a lot of exciting potential for making important contributions to how agricultural research and innovation is thought about, designed, and implemented in more inclusive ways, and I’m excited to see where this journey takes her next.